March 17, 2014

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid Muallem Heart Surgery

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem

Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem (وليد المعلم - more accurately, Mu'alim, but I will go with the common transliteration) underwent successful heart by-pass surgery at "a Beirut hospital," according to SANA, Syria's state-controlled news agency.

I note that SANA chose not to mention that "a Beirut hospital" was in fact the American University of Beirut Medical Center - we had to learn that from Lebanese media. SANA also opted not to explain why the minister chose to go to an American-affiliated institution in another country.

Walid Muallem, who is 73 years of age, is a career diplomat in the Syrian foreign service. That career includes a ten-year stint as the Syrian ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 2000. He played a role in Syria's decision to support the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1991.

Syria provided its 9th Armor Division to that effort (the American portion was Operation Desert Storm) - the division fought in Kuwait as part of a combined corps with two Egyptian divisions. Earlier in his career, Muallem also served at Syrian embassies in Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Spain, England and Romania.

In 2000, Muallem returned to Damascus to assume the position of assistant foreign minister, and was named deputy foreign minister in 2005 with instructions from President Bashar al-Asad to handle Syria's badly battered relations with Beirut in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri - believed to be the work of Hizballah at Syrian intelligence direction. He became foreign minister the next year.

Muallem is a Sunni from Damascus. He is a close advisor to President Bashar al-Asad, but since he is not a member of the 'Alawi sect or al-Asad clan, he is not a real insider. Bashar trusts him and values his counsel - he chose Muallem to lead the Syrian delegation to the United Nations-hosted talks with the opposition in Geneva earlier this year.

I have met Muallem on a few occasions when he was the ambassador to the United States, both in Washington and in Damascus. I spent several hours with him in 1994 during one of the visits of U.S. Secretary of State to Syria to meet with President Hafiz al-Asad. During this particular visit, the Syrian president was staying at his palace in his family home city of Qardahah, in the hills overlooking Syria's Mediterranean coast about 150 miles north of Damascus.

The secretary and his delegation flew into Damascus for meetings with the American country team at the embassy, then flew to Humaymim air base adjacent to the airport in Latakia, the major port city a few miles from Qardahah. The U.S. Air Force provided a VIP transport aircraft (a military version of the Boeing 737) for the secretary's use. I took advantage of my position as the air attache to ride in the jump seat in the cockpit - nice to be around American airmen again.

Ambassador Muallem and the Syrian foreign minister Faruq al-Shara' met the aircraft at the air base and accompanied the delegation to Qardahah on a Syrian Air Force helicopter. I remained at the base to take care of aircraft logistics and file the flight plan for the return to Damascus after the conclusion of the meeting.

After all of the Syrian and American officials arrived back at the base, we loaded all the Americans onto the U.S. Air Force jet - the Secretary of State, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria and all the attending support staff. The aircraft taxied out and took off, heading for Damascus. I looked around and realized I was still at a Syrian air base, alone with only the Syrian delegation. I asked Ambassador Muallem if I could hitch a ride on his aircraft back to Damascus; he laughed and asked if they had forgotten me.

Syrian Air Force Tupolev-134 VIP transport - my ride with Ambassador Muallem

We flew back to Damascus on a Syrian Air Force Tupolev-134 VIP aircraft - nice but not quite up to our standards. The ambassador was gracious and insisted that I join him and his aide in the main VIP cabin. We chatted socially - in Arabic - about our backgrounds and comparisons of living in each other's capital cities.

About 20 minutes into the short flight, the aircraft made a right turn onto a new heading. The ambassador looked out the window and asked his aide where we were. The aide looked and said he did not know. I told them that we had just turned over the air navigation beacon at al-Qaryatayn, about 45 miles southeast of Homs.

The ambassador smiled and told his aide, "It is interesting that he knows that and we don't." After we landed at the military ramp at Damascus International Airport, he had his aide drive me to the American embassy. Again, gracious and a gentleman. I wish him good health.

That said, the deputy prime minister represents a brutal, authoritarian regime. I can only hope that at some point he will decide to become part of the solution to his country's problems.